Top 100 Profile: Sail & Ski Centers, No.1

Rod Malone has told us over and over again that, “Goal setting and achievement is a process that requires discipline and a consistency of purpose that is based upon a clear vision of the mission of the organization.” It sounds every bit the leading argument in the best-selling business book of the day, but for Malone’s company, the Austin, Texas-based Sail & Ski Centers, it represents a foundation that has propelled it to the No. 1 marine dealership in North America.

It was more than 35 years ago that Sail & Ski Centers established its “statement of principles.” That document has evolved, yet it has remained the guideline for the direction of the company, the “constitution” that guides its decision-making.

Early last year, the company developed and added a one-page “core ideology” to its founding documents based on the principles outlined in Jim Collins’ book Good to Great. Malone believes the focus will “help us move from being a very good dealership to a great company with a vision that will propel it into the future.”

It would be tough to argue that Sail & Ski Centers wasn’t already a great dealership at the creation of its core ideology. The very foresight, motivation and ability to craft such a guiding mission and set of values, one could argue, is what makes Sail & Ski such a strong company. The team’s execution of the mission, however, certainly makes it a great company.

This level of planning and execution is found throughout the company. From its forecasting and business planning to the special sales training and marketing plans it has implemented, the expectation of excellence has become a pillar of the dealership.

Through a corporate strategic planning process, for example, Sail & Ski had created its fiscal year business plan by using a SWOT analysis, but by July of 2008, the Austin market had begun to feel the effects of the economic downturn that had already gripped much of the remainder of the nation. Sail & Ski’s response was calculated and precise: a rigorously followed expense-control plan.

Then, its annual Sea Ray dealer meeting offered additional help: a strategic planning workshop facilitated by a third party of “elite military professionals trained and experienced in planning and executing critical strategic missions.” Just like it was going to war against the economic crisis, Sail & Ski set out to create a contingency plan for its financial future.

“The Afterburner process is a concise planning process that has similarities to the type of strategic SWOT analysis and business planning that we currently use,” Malone explains. “However, the lesson learned at the workshop was that here was a process we could use to strategically plan for a specific mission or circumstance, and that was ‘how to deal with the imminent downturn’ in business. And that is what we did.”

As it turned out, the tactics Sail & Ski developed – which were updates to tried-and-true systems and procedures the company already had in place as opposed to unproven strategies – allowed the dealership to be proactive in beating the economy. And even after it created a three-page contingency plan and began adjusting its business, Sail & Ski identified a number of opportunities to further strengthen its business.

The company changed its fiscal year forecast to reflect a steeper drop in revenue; upgraded its budgeting process from a 12-month to a two-year fiscal period; developed a rolling 18-month cash flow budget; reduced staffing levels in a manner that would not harm its core capacity to create revenue or provide exemplary service; and changed its sales focus to the reduction of non-current and aged, slow-moving used unit inventory. Of equal importance, Sail & Ski made a conscious effort through meetings and one-on-one conversations to remain open and forthright with its employees about the possible effects of the downturn on its business and the impact it could have on them.

“We made it clear,” Malone explains, “that we were going to have to ‘sell’ our way out of the problem and that their efforts and attitudes were critical to the future success of our company.”

Above and beyond that, the company launched two particularly innovative initiatives in 2008. It joined the local chapter of the Luxury Marketing Council, an organization designed to provide collaborative opportunities with other luxury goods and services providers in its market area in reaching affluent customers, and it established the “Texas Boat Auction” subsidiary to help the dealership address the non-current and aged inventory issues resulting from the economic downturn.

When added up, Sail & Ski’s well-defined systems and processes have provided the company and its employees with a roadmap through the best of times and the hardest of times. But it’s the underlying foundation of an excellent management team and a guiding mission that have made Sail & Ski the top dealer in North America.

“We believe that because we have a concise set of principles and core ideology, that we were well prepared to deal with the changes in the marketplace that we are experiencing now,” Malone says. “Our discipline to review, anticipate and react to the issues, projects and opportunities before us is serving us well at the moment as it has in the past. In 35 years, this is not the first market challenge that we have faced as a company, and each time we have emerged as a stronger player with a greater competitive advantage.”

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